The qualifying exam is a hallmark of the doctoral student experience in nearly every discipline. In STEM disciplines, part of the evaluation is based on a written proposal of the research the student plans to execute over the next two or three years. Even though every student needs to write and present a QE proposal to advance to Ph.D. candidacy, expectations for the document can vary widely by discipline — and can even vary among individual faculty members. This can make the goalposts seem daunting and unclear, which makes it especially important as a student to familiarize yourself with the expectations and preferences of your particular audience, that is, the members of your committee.
In the framework of genre theory, written texts are defined by the relationships between their authors and audience members, and by what the text accomplishes in terms of transforming these relationships in some way (see Bazerman 2003, and my previous post on academic genre). The QE proposal is often an “occluded genre,” as described by Swales, in that the author is not fully aware of the audience’s expectations ahead of time but must figure them out in order to succeed (1996). It is sometimes argued that a sufficiently talented student ought to be able to deduce these expectations; on the other hand, the lack of clear information provided to students can serve as a gatekeeping mechanism that prevents otherwise qualified students from persisting in their graduate studies (Clark 2005).
My goal here is to start to demystify the QE proposal genre by compiling information and guidelines from graduate groups in STEM disciplines at UC Davis. I gathered information on the goals, objectives, expectations, and conventions of both the qualifying exam and the QE proposal from the websites of the 35 graduate groups in STEM fields listed by Grad Studies (https://grad.ucdavis.edu/programs), and looked for patterns among them, as well as components that vary by specific discipline. The following are the common themes I discovered that highlight the similarities and differences among the disciplines in expectations for the qualifying exam proposal.
- Audience is key. This is true in any written work, but takes on an elevated level of importance for the QE proposal due to the high stakes of the exam and the small size of the committee. Therefore, it’s crucial to talk to your committee members before your exam. Some graduate groups mandate pre-QE individual meetings with each committee member, and many recommend it. This is a good idea, whether or not your grad group requires it.
Ask each of your committee members, roughly a month ahead of time if not otherwise specified by your graduate program, some of the following questions: (1) what they think of your current dissertation plan; (2) what their take is on the purpose of the QE; (3) what they think defines a “prepared” student; and (4) what kinds of questions they’d have if you presented the draft of the proposal you have now. Then, take their feedback and use it to make your proposal even better. (My colleague’s post on navigating mentor/mentee relationships has several excellent tips on asking for feedback if you need concrete strategies).
- The main objective and purpose of the QE is remarkably consistent across graduate programs: your job is to establish yourself as someone capable of independent research. In describing the main objective of the QE, almost every graduate program or group expects expects the student to showcase their independence, creativity, and critical thinking. Similarly, the committee is evaluating your preparation, command, and mastery of key areas of the background information or theory in your discipline. Several graduate programs and groups note some key skills you should be able to demonstrate: “ability to apply the scientific method,” “ability to synthesize broad concepts and detailed information,” and “ability to design and execute a research project.” These common key phrases are taken directly from Grad Studies (https://grad.ucdavis.edu/academics/degree-requirements/doctoral-degree-milestones) and many grad programs refer to and/or expand on them to define the overall purpose of the QE. An important point to remember is that it’s not just about proving that you know the content of your research plan; it’s also critical to demonstrate your intellectual maturity, mastery of the field, and ability to think independently and creatively.
A couple of comments on these themes:
- Note that these skills and qualities are not discipline- or topic-specific, but are more about showcasing your scientific approach and critical thinking skills. As the Immunology grad group’s student handbook states, “discussion of the expected outcomes, potential problems, and alternative approaches are especially important for QE proposals.” In other words, focus at least as heavily on the approach and rationale for your project as you do on the content or subject that you propose to study.
- This is another excellent reason to meet with your committee members ahead of time, even if it’s not explicitly required. Having thoughtful, in-depth conversations with the committee members about your approach to your project can help you to gain perspective and can help establish your credibility with your committee before they read your proposal.
- Although the specific format of the proposal varies, there are some common trends. Many graduate groups list either a specific organizational structure for the proposal or a suggested framework; twelve graduate programs model their QE proposal format after standard grant or fellowship proposals for large national funding agencies like the NSF and NIH. Specific conventions vary: for example, the page limits for proposals are most commonly between five and fifteen pages, but vary across programs from three to thirty pages. Five programs do not list a suggested format, or provide only general guidelines; if you are in one of these groups and struggling with where to start with your writing, you may find it useful to peruse other graduate groups’ formatting structures to organize your ideas.
- Know your graduate program or group’s requirements. There are a few grad groups with unique rules: you might be expected to write a literature review or an extended, in-depth introduction, for example. If you are in Microbiology, you write two proposals: one for your dissertation research, and one for an “alternate,” hypothetical project on a topic that must be distinct from your advisor’s area of expertise. Whatever the specific policies are in your graduate group, it is imperative that you familiarize yourself with them.
Given the above, here are a few take-aways that may give you some ideas for actionable steps to improve your proposal, or to help focus your efforts as you write.
- Know your committee well – not just their research area and how it might inform their questions about your proposed dissertation work, but their approach to the qualifying exam and their expectations for you as a Ph.D. candidate. If possible, meet individually with each committee member to familiarize yourself with their expectations and perspective. (I’ve heard of some committee members who do not want to meet with students ahead of time, and that’s okay too – just make sure to ask for and thoroughly consider any advice you get from the committee members who do offer it.)
- In developing your proposal, focus on demonstrating critical thinking, independence and command of the subject matter. This can mean making sure to focus on the following as you write:
- contextualizing your work in terms of the big picture: make it clear exactly who should care about your project and why they should care; explain how your proposed work fits into the prior body of literature on the topic and related topics; highlight why your proposed project is important and necessary.
- distinguishing clearly between what is novel about your work, versus what is known: are your preliminary results consistent with the intuition that an expert in the field would have, or are they surprising? How does your work build on prior work, and what does it add that’s new? What gap(s) are you filling in the previous literature?
- Finally, remember that the QE only happens once, and that it is all about your developing identity as a scholar and scientist. Consider how your life experiences have shaped the decisions that led you to this point, and make your proposal your own!
If you have questions, if you’re struggling with your QE proposal, or if you would like an additional pair of eyes on your work, we’re here for you. Please feel free to make an appointment with a writing fellow for a consultation!
Bazerman, C. (2003). Speech acts, genres, and activity systems: How texts organize activity and people. What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices, 309–339.
Swales, J. M. (1996). Occluded Genres in the Academy. In E. Ventola & A. Mauranen (Eds.), Pragmatics & Beyond New Series (Vol. 1, p. 45).
Clark, I. L. (2005). Entering the Conversation: Graduate Thesis Proposals as Genre. Profession, 2005(1), 141–152.